Unlike most college classes, where you’re expected to do your best on your own and hope for a good grade, fiction writing classes thrive on peer criticism. It’s called “workshopping.” You write a story and give it to your classmates, and the next class session they all sit around and talk about what worked well in the story, and how it could be better.
The first fiction writing class I ever took was at LBCC in 2012. When it came time to workshop it, everyone took turns saying things about my story, and they all said nice things. No one criticized a single thing. I was elated. I had done it. My story was good.
Now, of course, I chuckle a bit at my past self and her fixed rather than growth mindset. It shouldn’t have been about being a good enough writer, or being a better writer than my classmates, it should have been about being the best writer I could be. And for that to happen, I needed criticism.
I’m in my fourth fiction writing class, now, and I’ve changed my tune. I submitted my story last Tuesday knowing that it felt a bit skeletal–like I should add something to it–but with only the vaguest idea of what I should add. And today, it got workshopped.
My classmates began, as is the custom, by saying what they liked about the story. They liked the characters. They loved the dialogue, which made me happy, because I love writing dialogue but didn’t actually know if it worked well in the story. They firmly established that my story was good, that it had potential, that I had writing talent.
And then they switched gears. By the time you reach a 400 level fiction writing class, saying only good things is no longer an option. It’s not fair to the author. It’s not true. Every rough draft in the universe could be improved in some manner.
I didn’t have enough of my character’s family in the story. “This scene here, on page 7, where the parents are lonely,” said Sarah. “That’s so good, but we don’t know why they’re lonely. You should put them in earlier scenes, so we understand this better.”
“I would have liked more description,” said Justin. “Like on page 9, where you wrote, ‘we sat on the porch and watched the horizon.’ I want to know what that looked like.”
Just like the first time I had a story workshopped, I left the room feeling elated. But I felt elated for different reasons. Not because I thought my story was awesome, but because I thought my story was full of possibility, and I had a very clear idea of how to make it awesome.
Tonight as I was weeding the hedge in the muggy twilight, I thought about how in my opinion, real-life criticism works best when it’s done like workshopping criticism.
First of all, we should limit our criticism to those who have “signed up for it” in some sense–such as family members, friends, and those whom we’ve invested in. Not randos on the internet we happen to dislike. (In fact, I don’t know if it’s ever appropriate to offer personal criticisms over the internet. That may be up for debate, but I definitely recommend face-to-face if possible.)
Second, we should begin with establishing why they’re great people in general, and what they’re doing well. This not only makes the criticism “sit” better, but it also is helpful too, the same way it was helpful to know that my dialogue was working well in my story.
And then, finally, voice our criticisms. But not a vague, “you’re annoying sometimes.” A very specific, “you tend to talk with your mouth full at the dinner table when you get really excited,” or “during Bible study, you dominate the conversation.” Things that are legitimately fixable.
Hopefully, this will leave people excited about what they can become, rather than feeling shamed about who they are.
I’m very curious about your thoughts on the matter. What has your experience of offering/receiving criticism been like?